“Appropriate” tackles racism, family dynamics

By Yasmina Cabrera
New York City, NY

In American culture, it’s common to depict issues of race through a token person of color – a generally one-dimensional character who goes against all stereotypes of their ethnic group and whose sole purpose in the story is to further the character development of the racist protagonist. Think Sidney Poitier in ‘In the Heat of the Night,’ Wilmer Valderrama in ‘That ’70s Show,’ and Samuel L. Jackson in anything.

There are a few problems with this narrative. It gives the audience the false assumption that blatant, “uneducated” racism is the only type that exists or should be challenged, and that direct interaction with someone from the marginalized group is the only way it can be combatted.

But what happens when the prejudiced character is a deceased Harvard Law graduate who owned an album full of lynching photos and a Klan hood? How do we speak about race when the marginalized group isn’t there to change this character’s point of view? Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play ‘Appropriate’ makes a statement by having the audience witness an all-white cast grapple with racism without a black character to tell them how to do so.

The result is a confused white family that takes an excruciatingly long time to come to terms with what their father did. While it was sometimes frustrating to watch the Lafayette family deny what had been so clear for so long, it provides for an honest ending.

The only character who seems to connect the dots at first is Rachel, the deceased man’s daughter-in-law. When she mentions receiving anti-Semitic sentiments from her father-in-law, everyone else in the house is slow to believe her, coming up with excuses for their father or ways she could have misinterpreted it. At one point she yells at them to realize what’s right in front of them.

This shows how slow white progressives can be to realize that racism and its effects still exist. They’re used to having proof spoon-fed to them by the token character, but that’s simply not realistic.

In the end, the Lafayette family battles with these complex issues for a weekend, then decides to just let go of the house and all of its baggage in order to begin a new story elsewhere. In this way, the ending of ‘Appropriate’ is one of the most accurate cultural representations of how white Americans come to terms with modern racism when they’re not being watched by the token black character.  

 

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